Can I sue my employer if I was hurt at work?
If you have been injured at work in Pennsylvania, you are normally unable to bring a personal injury lawsuit against your employer—even in cases where the employer was negligent and caused you to suffer an injury. Instead, the only possible recovery for a work injury is through the workers’ compensation system. Why is this case? To understand why, it is best to understand the history of worker’s compensation and how the system was created.
A brief history of Workers’ Compensation
Prior to the introduction of workers’ compensation statutes, any worker who was injured on the job had to prove in court that the employer’s negligence was responsible for the injury in order to receive compensation. This was often a long and costly process for any worker to undergo. And, there were many defenses that employers could use to avoid liability for injuries including contributory negligence which prevented recovery if the employee was even slightly at fault for the accident, the fellow-servant doctrine which could allow employers to avoid liability if another employee was the cause of the injury, and the assumption of the risk doctrine which prevented recovery if the employee was aware of and assumed the risks and dangers of the workplace. Due in large part to these defenses, many injured workers recovered no compensation in the event that they were hurt while at work.
But, despite the low odds of recovery, employers also faced their own risks. The system of proving employer negligence often led to court costs and judgments that employers could not predict and they faced rising workplace liability insurance premiums. Thus, the system provided significant incentives for reform from the perspective of both the worker and the employer. These reforms began first in Europe, starting in Germany in 1884. These workers’ compensation laws soon spread quickly to the United States, with Wisconsin passing the first law in 1911. Soon, the other states began to follow and each began to pass their own individual workers’ compensation laws. Pennsylvania passed its first Workers Compensation Act in 1915. By 1921, all but six states had replaced the old system of requiring a worker to sue to recover for an injury with a modern workers’ compensation system.
Workers’ compensation is often described as a “grand bargain” between workers and the employer. Under workers’ compensation, workers have relinquished the right to sue employers for any injuries that may be suffered in exchange for no-fault occupational injury insurance from the employer. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s workers’ compensation is a complex and difficult system to navigate; if you have been injured, it is best to contact an attorney who understands workers’ compensation in order to ensure that you are properly compensated for your injury and that your rights are protected.